I used to follow a blog written by a woman in her mid-twenties that was funny, moving, and finely-crafted. Then one day I clicked on her latest post and discovered that this blogger who was younger than me (!!) was telling me how to eat.
With no knowledge of my circumstances or tastes, and no qualifications in nutritional counselling, she’d decided to forgo her usual personal stories in favour of lecturing me and the rest of her readers about saturated fats. I can’t be the only one who clicked away thinking I’ve already heard of vegetables, thanks.
She may have been my first, but she certainly wasn’t my last.
Whereas blogs used to be about people sharing their struggles and successes, now they more often seem to involve screaming tough love aphorisms into the ether like a cut-price Dr Phil. On Twitter, it’s even worse. You’re scrolling through this wondrous, enormous, ongoing conversation between strangers, friends and the odd celebrity, when suddenly an acquaintance barges in and drops some earnest “inspirational” quote or invocation to relax/be humble/count your blessings. It’s a bummer.
If you tell me about your life, it makes me feel less alone but if you climb onto a soapbox, it makes me feel like a toddler. It puts a distance between us, like you think you know better than me, even though you don’t know me at all.
And this drive to dole out unsolicited advice isn’t limited to the internet — people also loooooove to give it out IRL. Anyone who has been through a long-term illness (or, I’m guessing, any other challenging ongoing situation) knows the drill:
You’re half-heartedly surfing the net, wondering if The Daily Bunny has updated yet, when you hear the ping or see the open envelope that signals you’ve got mail. Or you check your blog and there’s a long comment. Maybe it’s a brief but didactic tweet. It could even be a letter or (ew) a real life conversation.
Whatever form it takes, the medium doesn’t matter. It’s all about the message. And the message is: Did you ever hear of… Have you thought about doing… Do you think that maybe you should…?
In other words: WOW, ARE YOU HANDLING THIS ALL WRONG.
I get that in most cases, people are trying to be nice. They’re overzealous because they did something that worked, or they heard about someone who did something that worked, and they think that if I tried it, I’d feel better, too. They want the best for me, which is sweet.
But chances are I’ve either tried it, or already looked into it and discounted it. And I probably don’t want to have to justify why. I know that might sound hypocritical considering I put things out there. I write about my life, my health, and my feeeeeelings. But that’s not because I’m looking for advice or answers. I’m just blabbering publicly as a way to try to make sense of stuff (although a little empathy never goes astray).
If you start giving me health advice out of the blue, you’re reminding me of the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, something I haven’t come to terms with, even after all this time. (Especially after all this time.) Plus, you’re letting me know that my illness is a big part of your conception of me, which hurts my feelings because even if my situation seems dire, I still spend more time thinking about writing and reading and TV and cute animals than I do about my identity as an ill person, and I don’t want other people to see me as someone to feel sorry for.
You’re also telling me that you don’t think I can get better using my own resources, whereas I know — deep down, in a place I don’t always acknowledge (no, not my colon) — that I’ll get through this and come out the other side. It’s just a longer and more difficult journey than I could ever have imagined.
It might not look like I’m doing enough, or handling it right, but I’m doing my best and trying harder than it might seem. So if you send me “helpful” info, you not only bamboozle me (sunbeds? Self-administering enemas?!), you make it seem like you don’t trust me, or that you’d be better at this than I am. (You might be right about that. Swapsies?)
Perhaps aware of how annoying the influx of unasked-for amateur health advice is to someone with a chronic illness, people have actually started advising me by proxy, asking my loved ones questions like: “Has Diane thought about…?” “Why doesn’t Diane try…?” Or even: “Why don’t you buy her some [magical cure] right now?”
Again, they think they can help. But they’re making assumptions about my situation without making any attempt to understand it, and they’re stressing out the people I’m closest to.
Yet as much as I’d like to, I can’t pretend I’m above it. I’ve seethed at useless men my friends should’ve dumped, wondered why an acquaintance doesn’t stop whining and do that thing she should obviously do, and despaired that so-and-so won’t confront X about Y.
Someone else’s life is always simpler from the outside. The insider’s view, with all of its emotions and ramifications and financial consequences, is much messier.
Most of the time, we don’t know other people’s lives, not really. That’s why even when advice is solicited, its use is limited. We can only ever tell other people what works for us (or what we think might work for us), which could be entirely wrong for the person we’re advising.
Plus, when you boil down most of the advice on offer, especially online, it has the same simplistic moral: if you feel bad about something, try not to.
Worse than being useless, some advice is potentially dangerous. Slate’s Ask Prudence has a history as a rape apologist, which only perpetuates victim-blaming. And I recently heard a podcast where the hosts gave advice to someone who said she was suicidal — but they didn’t recommend a suicide hotline or other emergency sources of help, because they lacked the psychological training to know that they should.
That’s the trouble with turning other people’s problems into entertainment — your influence could be disastrous. Which makes me wonder why so many of us are so desperate to dish out advice in the first place.
I suspect it’s more about feeling important and trying to impose order on a random universe than actually “helping” anyone. I also suspect that the most useful thing you can do for someone who’s having a tough time is to listen to what they’re going through, try not to judge, and when you’re inspired to tell them how to handle things… STFU.
Image: Laughlin Elkind on Flickr (+ Photoshop).